Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Great American Brass Band Festival: Americana at its Best

Today is one of my favorite Saturdays of the year: the Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville, KY. Every year on this weekend the town spiffs up, the stage is built on the Centre College quad, and ten thousand plus come to enjoy our Norman Rockwell town and hear the best brass bands in the world. For free.

This weekend the weather is gorgeous – seventies and dry. Last night, at the gallery hop (featuring the work of junior Gruntled #2), the streets were lined with folks just milling and talking, eating strawberries, drinking lemonade, and enjoying some pretty good local art.

As I write, the coffee house is full. Soon there will be a parade down Main Street, led, as always, by the Olympia Brass Band from New Orleans. All day long, bands will fill the stage, and crowds will fill the college lawn. Groups of friends rent picnic tables decorated to a theme. Sunday morning the Salvation Army band will provide the music for an ecumenical church service.

One of the nicest features of the Brass Band Festival is how kid-friendly it is. On the college lawn there is a low spot in the middle where the little kids play, surrounded by ramparts of adults watching them, and watching out for them. The bigger kids just roam the town with their friends, buying funnel cakes and curly fries and other high-tone food. Parents stake out a spot with blankets and chairs, making a base for the kids to return to.

This year, or some year, come on down to Danville.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Gay vs. Ex-Gay Christians 3: What is Success?

More than 3/4ths of gay men and lesbians who wanted to change through sexual reorientation therapies "satisfied the criteria for good heterosexual functioning." That is the conclusion of Robert Spitzer, the Columbia University psychologist who led the movement to delist homosexuality as a psychological disorder, an expert who no one would call a homophobe. Michelle Wolkomir, in Be Not Deceived, does not have a comparable study of the specific ex-gay ministry she studied, but the director estimated that perhaps a third gave up and returned to homosexual activity.

75%-plus seems like a pretty good success rate to me. Yet until reading this study, I had seen the routine summary that sexual reorientation or reparation therapies and ministries work with only a small percentage of people.

I think the gap between these two assessments depends on whether the aim of such programs is to change gays' and lesbians' orientation, or to help them get control of their behavior. Spitzer reports that for gay men, only 11% reported that they had changed their orientation, while 37% of the women changed theirs. However, an additional 66% of the men, and 44% of the women were functioning well as heterosexuals.

So, what is the right measure of success – changed orientation, or changed behavior?

The analogy that occurs to me is Alcoholics Anonymous. They do not aim to help people stop desiring alcohol. No matter how many days or years a member has been sober, they still introduce themselves as, "Hello, my name is Bill, and I am an alcoholic." Success for AA is helping people stop drinking.

Groups like "Expell," the ex-gay ministry that Wolkomir studied, are for people who are trying to resist temptations that they don't want to give in to. If most of them succeed in reaching that goal, that would seem like a successful ministry to me.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Gay vs. Ex-Gay Christians 2: What Wives Do

The most interesting feature to me of Michelle Wolkomir's Be Not Deceived is the role of the ex-gay men's wives. The gay men, many of whom had been married, left their wives and girlfriends when they decided to accept being gay as a defining identity. For most of the ex-gay men, on the other hand, what motivated them to continue to struggle against their homosexual desires was that they loved their wives and wanted to stay married to them.

Wolkomir's initial study worked just with the men in gay and ex-gay support ministries. When she realized how important the wives were to the ex-gay men, she wanted to interview the women, too. To her surprise, though, the leader of the ex-gay group was very reluctant to connect Wolkomir with the wives of the men in that group, and the women themselves, when the leader asked them, did not want to be interviewed. I think I understand this. For all of these women, the fact that their husbands sexually desired other men – and often did not have much sexual desire for their wives – was a shocking discovery and a painful ongoing fact of their lives. Talking to another woman who probably knew their husband's sexual experiences and desires even better than the wives knew it themselves would be, I think, more than most people would want to bear.

Fortunately for us, Wolkomir was resourceful and persistent. Eventually, through an internet query to a national network of ex-gay men's wives, she was able to interview 15 of them.

Here is the crucial thing these wives said: they stayed committed to their husbands because they were first committed to God. They did love their husbands, and did work with them in dealing with the men's struggles and inevitable setbacks. But their marriage was not simply for their own satisfaction, or even for their kids' sake. The ex-gay men and their wives regarded their marriage as part of their commitment to God.

Setting their struggle within their larger, deeper, and prior commitment to God made the struggle seem winnable, and really did strengthen them to succeed.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Gay vs. Ex-Gay Christians 1: Defending Christianity

Gay Christians defend their faith against other Christians, who think the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. No surprise. But ex-gay Christians also defend their faith against other Christians who think the Bible condemns homosexuality as a worse sin than other sins. Men in both kinds of ministries support one another as they share the work of making a place for themselves in the church.

This is the interesting finding of Michelle Wolkomir, a sociologist at Centenary College, in Be Not Deceived: The Sacred and Sexual Struggles of Gay and Ex-Gay Christian Men. She spent several years as an observer and, where possible, participant in two parallel ministries for gay men, one with the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church, the other with the ex-gay Exodus International ministry. Wolkomir describes herself as a married non-religious Jewish woman, so it is a real testimony to her skills as an ethnographer that she was accepted and trusted in both groups.

Wolkomir shows how strongly similar the two groups of men are. Likewise, both ministries are strikingly parallel in helping these men bond by re-interpreting their Christian experience. Both the Metropolitan Community Church and Exodus International are conservative Protestant ministries – a point not always appreciated about the MCC even by its secular allies. The men in both groups are trying to be faithful, Bible-believing Christians, while wrestling with homosexual desires. Many in both groups are or were married, and have children. These are not the gay men who reject the Bible and Christianity as oppressive; instead, they are arguing with their fellow conservative Christians about how their homosexual desires should be understood and dealt with.

The gay Christians interpret their homosexual desires as something that God made them with, which they should therefore accept. The ex-gay Christians interpret their homosexual desires as the result of bad experiences – molestation, or unloving fathers, or the like – which they should seek God's help in resisting and healing.

The crucial question for Wolkomir is, why do some of these men choose a gay ministry, and others an ex-gay ministry? Her answer is that they join these ministries for the same reasons they joined the church in the first place. The gay Christians tend to be men who were raised conservative Christians. They are trying to find a way to stay in the church they have always known. The ex-gay Christians tend to be men who were isolated from others, by their homosexuality and for other reasons. They are trying to find a community that will accept them and help them wrestle with their particular sins.

I find this pattern to be parallel to what I have found in studying the Presbyterian Church, which I am sure is true for all mainline churches. Most members in the vast middle of the church are converts. They chose to join because they accept the traditional beliefs of the church, as they sometimes hazily understand them, and are looking to find a community that they want to fit into. The Presbyterians who describe themselves as "extremely liberal," on the other hand, are much more likely to have been raised in the church. They assume that they are Presbyterians almost by definition, and are trying to change the church to be more like them.

For all of these folks, their life in the church is more about what group they want to belong to than it is about their theological beliefs.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Washing Out the Jewishness of "The Squid and the Whale"

One advantage of coming to a film late is that the DVD has extras. In a straight fictional film I just skip these parts – I want to see the finished work, not the rough drafts. In documentaries, though, the extras are often interesting, adding further detail to the reality of the subject, not just to the craft of moviemaking. "The Squid and the Whale" is in between fact and fiction. It is clearly based on the writer/director Noah Baumbach's real life, and the mess made by his parents' divorce. The interesting extra on the DVD is an interview of Baumbach by Philip Lopate.

In the film and in real life, the parents are both writers living in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in the mid-'80s. They think of themselves as intellectuals and live a somewhat bohemian life – bohemian for married people with kids and a house and cars. The father contrasts what he wants his sons to be with "philistines," which he defines as "people who aren't interested in books and interesting movies." In the film, the parents, Bernard and Joan Beckman, are excellentlyl played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. As the IMDB review put it, casting Jeff Daniels as the aging, and declining, writer will make many viewers see his character through the lens of Flap Horton, the hapless, adulterous English professor that Daniels played in "Terms of Endearment."

Lopate, though, who knows Noah Baumbach's real father, noted that Jonathan Baumbach said everything in "double inverted commas." He would make the kind of pompous pronouncements that Bernard Beckman says, but at the same time he would have a knowing critical detachment from them. Lopate asks if Noah Baumbach meant to take the "Jewishness" out of the family? In the interview, Baumbach was taken by surprise by this question. It seemed to me that, in the director's mind, the most salient fact about his family was not Jewishness, but intellectuality. He says that all families think of themselves as superior to others. He means that in class terms – as intellectuals and writers, his family is above the normal rules.

I think Lopate reads "Jewishness" as meaning the same thing that Baumbach means by "intellectual." Lopate, a noted writer himself, opens the interview by announcing to the audience that "all writers are bastards." He is certainly not saying that all Jews are bastards. He is suggesting, I think, that secular Jewish intellectuals are really above the rules of normal bourgeois life, but they do so knowing that that superiority is itself a cliché. Played by Daniels and Linney, the parents come off as hapless WASPs, not fully aware of the effect they are having on the children. The movie would feel different if the director had cast toward the ethnic reality behind the movie. I imagine that another layer of meaning would have been added if Baumbach had cast, say, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, the real parents of Owen Kline, who plays the younger son in the film; or Jennifer Jason Leigh, the director's wife, who played Dorothy Parker [Dorothy Rothschild] so well in "Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle"; or any of the literally dozens of well-known Jewish actors from New York.

As "The Squid and the Whale" itself shows, divorced kids want to keep points of connection with their parents, even if they criticize the divorce itself. I read Noah Baumbach as making this film as a "Brooklyn intellectual," just like his parents, without fully seeing that Brooklyn intellectual is a more specific and distinctive ethnic and class location than he knows.

Monday, June 05, 2006

College Reunion for the Married

We spent the weekend at Mrs. Gruntled's college reunion. This is always a happy time – we see old friends, walk the gorgeous campus, hear how much better the student body has become over the years, and eat cheesesteaks (one of the very few important deficiencies of central Kentucky). I also get to engage in the sociologist's favorite pastime: finding patterns in groups.

Two strong patterns stood out. First, no one smoked. In our college days, a fifth of the class smoked some, maybe even a fourth. This weekend, I did not see smoking by anyone in the class, and indeed almost none by alumni in any class. Mostly, I think, we grow up and put away adolescent things. But it is also likely that the smokers are just less likely to come back. The people who seemed most alienated from the college at the time were also very likely to be heavy smokers.

The second strong pattern was how married the returnees were. Now, most college graduates get married, so it is not surprising that a college reunion is mostly a gathering of married people. But this group was almost completely married. In fact, nearly all (approaching 90%) were married parents, and kids' schooling was the default topic of conversation.

I can see a two opposing factor that would make reunions disproportionately married. Reunions draw pro-institutional people; so does marriage. This goes double for people who marry classmates or college-mates like the Gruntleds – their marriage loyalty reinforces their alumni loyalty. The opposite force comes from divorce, especially for those divorced from classmates. There are happy exceptions – we ate with a woman who had served as "best man" at her ex's second marriage. At the same table were her ex and her new husband, all swapping stories.

Next year is my reunion. I do want to see my married classmates. I want to see the others, too. I guess I had better volunteer for the committee, to encourage everyone to come.